Jamaica Magazine

Wakes and Funerals – An American Retiree in Jamaica

Wakes and funerals are very different in Jamaica compared to where I came from in the United States. Within a month of moving to Jamaica, a Jamaican friend’s sister and her brother-in-law were killed in a horrible automobile accident. About two weeks later, after the mandatory autopsy, the wake began. They call it a “dead yard” here. Many years ago, this was a time of mourning where relatives and friends gathered at the home of the deceased to offer their condolences. Well…that was then and this is now! Today, it is party time! At least, the one I went to was. One couldn’t help find the grieving family’s home. A D.J. had set up two towers of speakers nearly as tall as the house. Music, not hymns or chamber music, but the latest in reggae and dancehall music, could be heard for a great distance before the home.

Like days of old, relatives and friends gathered to pay their respects to the family. Instead of bringing a spiritual bouquet or a sympathy card, guests brought food, rum and beer for the feast that was about to take place. People came early and stayed late. They were dressed in everything from tee-shirts to fine dress shirts, shorts to neatly pressed pants. Other than a few brief words of condolences, most of the time was spent chatting with other mourners, eating, drinking and playing Jamaica’s favorite table game, Dominos. This party or feast not only lasted well into the night but continued for 8 nights. The 8 nights were just a warm-up for “nine night”, when all the stops were pulled out. The family prepared a feast of all feasts! The highlight of the feast was a curried goat, a favorite meat of Jamaicans. To accompany the goat was enough food to feed a small army. I was told many of the people in attendance were not known to the family but were drawn like a magnet by the loud music and the aroma of good food.

The next day, the party was over, at least for a few hours. Mourners gathered early to attend the funeral service. This day they were dressed in their finest clothes. Men wore suits with jackets and ties while the women dressed in long dresses and the traditional fancy hats. One thing most Jamaicans have with them at all times is a small cloth to wipe the perspiration off their brow. They would need it before the day was over.

Prior to the church service, family and close friends attended a service at the funeral home. From there, the casket was transported to the already packed church in preparation for the larger service.

Jamaica has more churches per capita than any other country in the world. With that in mind, I was quite surprised at the size of the church, once I found it, but that’s another story. The church was beautiful though not air-conditioned. There were numerous ceiling fans and wide open windows that helped cool the late morning service. It wasn’t long before everyone was using their cloth as the number of people gathered quickly heated the church.

One of the first things to catch my eye upon entering the church was an usher presenting me with what looked like a program detailing the service. It was more than any program I had ever seen. It consisted of a glossy picture of the deceased on the front page with a detail description of the service including all the words to the many hymns on the several pages inside. The back was a collage of pictures of the deceased with members of her family. This was not something printed in the cellar of the church. I was totally impressed with the thought and detail that went into this outstanding program.

This church, like many I have seen, consists of a small band made up of a piano, guitars, drums, and sometimes trumpets and saxophones on one side of the altar and a choir on the other side. The service started somewhat on time. It isn’t often anything starts on time in Jamaica! The length of the service was quite long, perhaps bordering on two hours. The choir was from a local school supported, in part, by the church. After their portion of the service was over, a special collection was taken on their behalf. The service consisted of the general things of a church funeral; hymns, scripture readings, testimonials, etc. It was a beautiful service.

The big surprise was found upon exiting the church. There, within 20 feet of the door, was a vendor selling cold drinks and ice cream! I can tell you, he did a big business! That would never be allowed in prim and proper New England!

From the church, the procession traveled about 20 miles for the grave side service. I did not attend this service but it was also described in the program received at the church. Once the service was over, people were invited back to the home where more food was served.

While this was my first experience of this type in Jamaica, it does not represent all wakes and funerals. Perhaps this particular case was driven by the age of the deceased. She was in her mid twenties. Since then, I have attended a funeral for an elderly member of the small community I live in. I assure you, there wasn’t any of the party atmosphere I just described. This one was more reminiscent of services I had become accustomed to. In both cases, there was an outpouring of sympathy at the church services. Perhaps in the first case, the family wanted to celebrate her life and to remember her in happier times.

About the author

John Casey